Egyptian Vulture. Photo from Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton and Hove.
There are numerous references to the rare sighting (and shooting) of an
Egyptian Vulture in Peldon on 28th September 1868, an event newsworthy enough to be featured in newspapers up and down the country and of major interest to naturalists and scientists even today.
Indeed as I add to this in June 2021 it has made national news this week that a bird arrived at the Scilly Isles and the Peldon incident is quoted as the last confirmed sighting in this country.
The article below printed in The Chelmsford Chronicle was taken from The Field magazine and written by Dr Charles
Robert Bree (1811 - 1886). Dr Bree was a senior physician at Essex and Colchester Hospital for 22 years and lived with his wife
near to Greyfriars close to where East Hill adjoins High Street in Colchester. He was also a naturalist, author and no mean
illustrator. [footnote 1]
[footnote 1] Dr Bree published The History of Birds not observed in the Britsh Isles which remained for more than a decade the
only English general work of reference on the subject. He also wrote Popular Illustrations of the Lower Forms of Life
both books illustrated by him. He disagreed with Darwin's theories of evolution ( Darwin's Origin of The Species had been
published in 1859) and wrote Species Not Transmutable, nor the result of Secondary Causes and An Exposition of the Fallacies
in the Hypothesis of Mr Charles Darwin. He was also a contributor to The Field and The Zoologist as well as co-editor of the
Notices of Essex Ornithologists. He had a large collection of skins, birds' eggs, nests and bones including the bones of the
Egyptian Vulture from Peldon. Most of his collection was sold on shortly after his death.
CAPTURE OF AN EGYPTIAN VULTURE. On the 28th of September, says Dr. Bree in The Field of Saturday last, the labourer who had
charge of an off-hand farm of Mr. Wollard, [footnote 2] of Stanway Hall, situated at Peldon, Essex, had been killing his
Michaelmas geese. On going some time after into the yard where the said geese had been slaughtered he saw a strange
bird feeding upon the blood. The bird flew away, and the man loaded his gun. Presently the bird came and hovered over the spot,
in hopes of another spell at the blood; but his fate was sealed, and he fell dead to the labourer's shot. I saw the bird next day
at the house of Mr. Ambrose, of this place, to whom it had been sent for preservation. Mr. Wollard has kindly since furnished
me with the above information. As far as I know, this is only the second instance of the capture of vultur percnopterus in
Great Britain, the first having been shot on the shores of the Bristol Channel, as recorded by Yarrell,
Morris, Macgillivray, &c, in 1825. It is quite possible that it has more frequently visited our shores though not captured.
Mr Layer, of this town, informs me that many years ago his father, who lived near Burnham, further up the
Essex coast than Peldon, had a flock of vultures for several days among the large trees on his farm.
They were known by their bare heads, and were most probably the Egyptian vulture. At all events, this bird must now,
I think, be ranked without doubt among the occasional strangers which visit our shores. The specimen now shot was in immature plumage.
As differs in some respects from all the definitions of this bird, I will detail its description, made myself the day after the
bird was shot: -Length, 26 inches: expanse of wings, five-feet three-inches: carpas to tip of wing, 18 inches; tail, 10 inches ;
bluish flesh colour, with hook black. The Egyptian vulture is common in Spain, and has wide range, extending through France,
Norway, Egypt (where it is known as Pharaoh's chicken), South Africa, and is abundant in India. Peldon, where this bird was
shot, is the next parish inland to Mersea. The Chelmsford Chronicle Friday October 16 1868
[footnote 2] This is in fact not Mr Wollard of Stanway Hall farm but a Mr Woodward..
Henry Woodward (1810 - 1892) was born in Stanway. In the 1851 census he is living in Maldon Road, Peldon, farming 470 acres and
three of his children are born in Peldon in 1845, 1847 and 1850. In the 1861 census he is resident in Stanway in Heath Farm and
in the 1881 census he is farming 450 acres and resident at Stanway Hall Farm employing 18 labourers.
As we see above the bird was immediately sent to the Colchester taxidermist, Henry Ambrose, who ran his own shop in North Street,
Colchester where Dr Bree was able to examine it. It was studied, measured, and drawn then loaned to John Gould, leading
ornithologist and bird artist, who between 1863 and 1873 published a monumental ornithological book
The Birds of Great Britain issued in 5 parts (and now fetching hundreds of thousand pounds). Gould commissioned
Joseph Wolf to make a drawing which was passed on to Henry Constantine Richter to make a lithograph and this appeared in Gould's book.
Despite the book being of British birds Egyptian vultures are included and shown with pyramids in the background.
In the five volumes of The Birds of Great Britain there were 367 plates of illustrations largely produced by Gould, Richter
and Wolf. [footnote 3]
[footnote 3] The German, Joseph Wolf (1820 - 1899) moved to London to work at the British Museum in 1848 and became a preferred
illustrator by explorers and naturalists including David Livingstone . He specialised in illustrations depicting wildlife in natural life-like poses. Henry Constantine Richter (1821 - 1902) was a renowned English maker of lithographs. Richter's work involved preparing precise, scientific accurate drawings and transferring them to stone for the lithograph process. Over his career he was responsible for more than 1,600 hand coloured lithographs, mostly done for Gould.
Finally, the Peldon bird was sold at auction in 1910 for £38. 17s (a large sum in those days) and ended up in the Booth Museum in
Brighton where it is to this day, The bird is displayed together with a 'Michaelmas' goose recreating the story of how it was killed.
[footnote 4] Edward Thomas Booth 1840 - 1890 made a large collection of British birds in the 19th century and built a museum in 1874 in Brighton to house his collection. He left the building and collection to the town upon his death. Birds were displayed in a 'diorama' to show the sort of habitat they frequented.
In some accounts it gives the name of the farm labourer who shot the bird as John Talbot. Looking at the 1861 census there is a John Talbot aged 39 described as a farm bailiff living at Sampson's Farm, Peldon, where it is highly likely this event happened.
This 1868 Egyptian Vulture was only the second recorded sighting in the country and the first in our county of Essex.
Subsequent sightings are not reliably proved. Since the bird has been commonly kept in captivity it is always possible sightings are of an escaped captive bird. In Simon Wood's book The Birds of Essex (published in 2007) he states that the Peldon bird was the last sighting of an Egyptian Vulture in this country. However there was great excitement amongst 'twitchers' and naturalists in North Norfolk in 2007 when it's believed another genuine wild bird appeared.
..... and Michaelmas Geese
It is evident from this article that the custom of eating goose at Michaelmas still persisted in Peldon in 1868.
Michaelmas Day celebrates St Michael and All Angels and falls on 29th September in most parts of the country and cooking a goose to
celebrate the day was a custom from the Middle Ages. According to folklore eating one on the day would bring financial luck for the coming year.
'Eat a Goose on Michaelmas Day
Want not for money all the year'
Goose fairs became very popular (the Nottingham Goose Fair is perhaps the most well-known) and geese were driven for miles
to market by the farmers. John Talbot was clearly killing his geese on the eve of this 'Saint's Day'. Michaelmas geese tend to be leaner than their Christmas cousins. Fed on lush grass in spring and on the stubble after harvest they are not as fat as the wheat-fed Christmas goose.
Michaelmas was also considered the beginning of the farming year and was one of the 'quarter days' Michaelmas 29th September, Christmas 25th December, Lady Day 25th March and Midsummer Day 24th June
The date falls near the autumn equinox and also marks a medieval festival when harvest was over and farmers paid rent to landowners, often offering geese as part of the exchange. Michaelmas became associated with paying off debts and paying rent - the Edward Marke Charity (set up in 1623) which runs the allotments at Langenhoe still uses Michaelmas as the date for paying the annual dues and 'Michaelmas term' which starts the academic year at universities is still in use.
After World War One as the country became more industrialised and people moved to towns many customs such as this started to decline.